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World J Oncol. 2013 Jun;4(3):142-146.

Cancer Treatment in Malawi: A Disease of Palliation.

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Department of Surgery, University of North Carolina, CB 7228, Chapel Hill NC, USA.



Worldwide, new cancer cases will nearly double in the next 20 years while disproportionately affecting low and middle income countries (LMICs). Cancer outcomes in LMICs also remain bleaker than other regions of the world. Despite this, little is known about cancer epidemiology and surgical treatment in LMICs. To address this we sought to describe the characteristics of cancer patients presenting to the Surgery Department at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi.


We conducted a retrospective review of adult (18 years or older) surgical oncology services at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi from 2007 - 2010. Data obtained from the operating theatre logs included patient demographics, indication for operative procedure, procedure performed, and operative procedures (curative, palliative, or staging).


Of all the general surgery procedures performed during this time period (7,076 in total), 16% (406 cases) involved cancer therapy. The mean age of male and female patients in this study population was 52 years and 47 years, respectively. Breast cancer, colorectal cancer, gastric cancer, and melanoma were the most common cancers among women, whereas prostate, colorectal, pancreatic, and, gastric were the most common cancers in men. Although more than 50% of breast cancer operations were performed with curative intent, most procedures were palliative including prostate cancer (98%), colorectal cancer (69%), gastric cancer (71%), and pancreatic cancer (94%). Patients with colorectal, gastric, esophageal, pancreatic, and breast cancer presented at surprisingly young ages.


The paucity of procedures with curative intent and young age at presentation reveals that many Malawians miss opportunities for cure and many potential years of life are lost. Though KCH now has pathology services, a cancer registry and a surgical training program, the focus of surgical care remains palliative. Further research should address other methods of increasing early cancer detection and treatment in such populations.


AIDS; Africa; Neoplasms; Surgery; Treatment

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